In his 2004 New Yorker article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Jim Wigon, a hapless food entrepreneur trying to market his gourmet brand of World’s Best ketchup against the Heinz ketchup juggernaut. “He starts with red peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, and a high-end tomato paste,” Gladwell writes of Wigon’s rebel ketchup recipe.
Basil is chopped by hand, because the buffalo chopper bruises the leaves. He uses maple syrup, not corn syrup, which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz. He pours his ketchup into a clear glass ten-ounce jar, and sells it for three times the price of Heinz, and for the past few years he has crisscrossed the country, peddling World’s Best in six flavors – regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil – to specialty grocery stores and supermarkets.
Despite all this loving attention to culinary detail, Gladwell tells us, Wigon is destined to fail because unlike the many varieties of mustard and other food products whose popularity skews widely among different palates, Heinz ketchup is that near perfect food, balancing the five major taste areas – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and beloved by toddlers so famously averse to trying new foods.
“The Ketchup Conundrum” is itself the Heinz ketchup of magazine feature articles: a near perfect example of the form, balancing wit, erudition, good reporting, vivid characters, and terrific storytelling to explore a conundrum so glaring you never thought to wonder about it. Journalism like this made Gladwell famous, but Gladwell himself has more or less stopped doing this kind of journalism. In the case of “The Ketchup Conundrum,” he asked a great question and found a bunch of smart, quirky experts to help him answer it. In his latest book, David and Goliath, out this week, he appears to have started with an answer and then gone looking for people to prove him right. All too often these days, the same thing happens when he contributes articles to the New Yorker.
In David and Goliath, as in his earlier books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, Gladwell displays a fondness for the classical essay form: He begins with an introduction followed by an explicit thesis statement, then sets out to prove his case with evidence, typically a variety of wildly divergent case studies taken from history or contemporary life larded with statistics and findings from economics and the social sciences. This structure suits Gladwell’s purpose, first, because it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a college composition course, and second, because the form, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, carries with it a veneer of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
The thesis of David and Goliath, a book about the limits of power and the power of limitations, is as follows: “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” As is often the case, Gladwell works up to this carefully, as if he were about to argue that, No, in fact the earth is flat, but his assertion is not as counter-intuitive as he seems to think. Any American who grew up during or shortly after the Vietnam War – which is to say, the great majority of Gladwell’s readers – will surely recognize that a small, determined foe can quite often defeat a larger, lumbering opponent. But given our recent history of military misadventures and fiscal hubris, perhaps it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
In his first chapter, adapted from a 2009 New Yorker article, Gladwell follows a team of twelve-year-old “little blond girls” from Silicon Valley, who despite having little to no basketball experience, end up at a national championship tournament. Their coach, Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born software engineer who has himself never played basketball, is appalled by the way American teams play the game, retreating back to their half of the court after each basket, thereby ceding three-quarters of the court to their opponents. If his team of inexperienced non-athletes plays this way, which reinforces the strengths of the better players, Ranadivé knows they will lose. So instead they play a full-court press, contesting all ninety-four feet of the court, and begin steamrolling far more talented opponents.
The chapter allows Gladwell to offer a deft demonstration of how culture can unwittingly favor the powerful – how else to explain why even losing teams cede three-quarters of the court to more talented foes? – but also a neat parable of why hard-working immigrants have done so well in American universities and in Silicon Valley. Gladwell is too subtle a writer to spell this out, but it is clear that Ranadivé’s bafflement with the traditional way of playing basketball and his emphasis on relentless physical conditioning to wear out opponents is of a piece with his success in the software business.
Gladwell takes this lovely little story and runs with it, setting the tale of Ranadivé’s unlikely basketball stars alongside a history of Lawrence of Arabia’s use of guerrilla tactics to help his ragtag force of Bedouin tribesmen to defeat a larger, better-armed Turkish Army during World War I. Combining these cases, Gladwell shows not only why underdog strategies work, but also why so few underdogs try them: “Underdog strategies are hard.” To win, underdogs have to reconceptualize the task before them in ways that play to their strengths, take huge risks, and work harder than their opponents. Most people – Gladwell doesn’t say it, but it’s clear we are meant to read: most lazy, overprivileged Americans – prefer to lose easy than to win hard.
But from this point on, things go downhill, fast. In chapter after chapter, Gladwell cherry-picks data, uses results from one set of circumstances to draw unsupported conclusions about other sets of circumstances, soft pedals counter-explanations, and sets up false comparisons. Early on, for instance, he compares a young woman who drops out of a highly competitive science program at an Ivy League school to the difficulties faced by Impressionist painters trying to gain respect from the French art establishment, arguing that, in both cases, those involved suffered from being small fish in a big pond.
I would never suggest, as Gladwell does, that a student aim one rung lower than she is qualified for to avoid feeling overwhelmed by her fellow students, but at least that’s an argument one can make. But one can’t argue that the Impressionists suffered because they couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to their work. It’s simply not true. As Gladwell himself notes, when Edouard Manet’s painting of a prostitute, titled Olympia, was displayed in 1865 at the famous Salon held every year at the Palais de l’Industrie, it “sent all of Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay.” The Impressionists weren’t small fish in a big pond; they were blowing up the pond.
But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”
He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
I began David and Goliath more or less ignoring Gladwell’s preface dealing with the Biblical story of the battle between the lowly shepherd and the mighty Philistine. His pseudoscientific take on the tale is absurd even by Gladwellian standards, rife with wild suppositions treated as accepted fact. But I ended the book sensing that Gladwell’s choice to begin the book this way is telling. For one thing, it’s ur-Gladwell. Over and over in his books and New Yorker pieces, he portrays himself as a nettlesome outsider, a sort of notepad-wielding shepherd boy flinging stones – odd facts, little-known studies, startling graphs, moving stories – at a world of oafish Philistines who don’t understand the quirky counter-intuitiveness of it all.
More important, though, it helped me see that despite his classical essay structure and all the charts and graphs and interviews with eminent scientists, Gladwell isn’t interested in science. He isn’t interested in facts. He’s interested in stories. Gladwell’s books shouldn’t be read as arguments based in evidence, but as parables based in neo-liberal orthodoxy. One can’t read David and Goliath, particularly the later chapters dealing with the overreach of entrenched power, without thinking of the Bush years, of the War on Terror and Gitmo, of mortgage-backed securities and Lehman Brothers, of “Mission Accomplished” and Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora. Gladwell never takes any of these subjects on directly, but David and Goliath often reads as one long parable against the folly of ignoring the limits of American might and power. And I agree with him. But I want to be right because I’m actually right, not because the guys on my side are better at telling stories. Stories are easy. Facts are hard. I want facts.
As we noted yesterday, Carolyn Kellogg has an interesting piece up at Papercuts about Bruce Springsteen and Walker Percy. Carolyn expresses some surprise at finding out that the Boss is an avid reader. To us die-hard fans, however, evidence of Bruce’s bookish leanings is legible as far back as the late ’70s. There’s the song title nicked from Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” from Tracks); the in-concert plug for Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life (on Live 1975-1985); the East of Eden-ish “Highway Patrolman” (from Nebraska); and the long quotation from The Grapes of Wrath in the title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad.For those interested in what else Bruce has been reading, a big photo spread of Springsteen’s “writing room” in the current issue of Rolling Stone offers a tantalizing glimpse (Ed. – The photo they’ve posted is much smaller than the one in the magazine, frustrating attempts at further investigation online). I found myself distracted from the accompanying article, perusing the bookshelves instead, as I tend to do involuntarily when I’m invited into the house of an acquaintance for the first time. In addition to the prerequisites of any writing room – Roget’s Thesaurus; The Holy Bible; Bob Dylan’s Lyrics – the Springsteen shelves boast an eclectic mix of literary fiction and books on history and music. Here’s what I could glean from the spines.Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne PhillipsWhite Noise, by Don DeLilloAmerican Pastoral, by Philip RothThe Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell Cold New World , by William FinneganCountry: The Music and the MusiciansAmerican Moderns, by Christine StansellReal Boys, by William PollackAt the Center of the Storm, by George TenetWhen We Were Good, by Robert S. CantwellJohn Wayne’s America, by Garry WillsThe Elegant Universe, by Brian GreeneThe Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. GoldmanFeel Like Going Home, by Peter GuralnickDark Witness, by Ralph WileyGo Cat Go, by Craig MorrisonNew Americans, by Al SantoliOrlando, by Virginia WoolfCurrently, Bruce appears to be reading Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. And he is evidently something of a fan-boy himself; prominently displayed on his coffee table is a book called Greetings from E Street.
The “Bloggies” are back. Looking at this year’s nominees, our thoughts from last year still hold true.We try not to rag on the NBCC too much around here, but inadvertently giving your big book recommending initiative the same name as a wildly popular reading-focused social network just smacks of cluelessness.People are still ripping on litblogs. This time, it’s Bud eloquently defending our honor.The New Yorker has presented its portfolio of winners in its contest to “redefine Eustace Tilley,” the magazine’s dapper icon.Free, downloadable mini-books from Chicago’s Featherproof BooksDoes Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point hold up in the real world? Not exactly.FSG’s Lorin Stein reviews Norman Rush’s Mortals: “the most brilliant book of the new century [maybe].”Granta’s 100th issue (congrats!) is here. William Boyd’s introduction offers up some history on the magazine.Just in time for “Super Tuesday,” Michael Chabon throws his hat in the ring for ObamaAttention “Oregon Trail” fans, outdoor equipment company Thule offers a goofy remake of the game. Ah, advertainment. (via)Finally, an important question, answered.
It is a ubiquitous feature in bookstores – especially at airports: The New York Times Best Seller List. The words “From The New York Times Best-Selling Author” flash at a reader from the top of a book cover, capturing interst and, well, dollars.The Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt explains the selection process, why the list is more widely followed and valued than other, competing “best seller” compilations – from USA Today and Rupert Murdoch’s (ouch) Wall Street Journal – in an informative column.Apparently an NYT Best Seller sticker can drive up sales by as much as 57 percent for a first-time author. Publishers are, naturally, conscious of this priceless marketing tool and accordingly try to rig the market, Hoyt writes. Not to worry, the editors at the Times safeguard readers against such shams.But Times editors too might not fully understand the procedure, according to Hoyt. And while the Times might make sure that “evergreens” like Catcher in the Rye or an SAT study guide don’t stay on the list forever, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – which came out in paperback in 2002 – has been on it for a stunning 164 weeks.The column might leave you a tad confused, but at least you won’t ask yourself what the heck an “NYT Best Seller” is next time you are idling at an airport bookstore.
Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
The Guardian gives us Booker-winner Line of Beauty “condensed in the style of the original.”Some of you may have already seen this one: The 100 Greatest Books of all Time, also from the Guardian. How many have you read? I’m at 24, and I love that Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim makes the list. To anyone who is looking for a recommendation on what to read right now: get Lucky Jim, you’ll love it.Weren’t we talking about ISBNs the other day? Here’s a new blog about ISBNs and “book information” by a former Amazon employee and the creator of isbn.nu.Steve Landsburg asks: Too many books? I’m not completely sure I see his point. He seems to be implying that people only read one book a year. Furthermore, publishers fall all over themselves trying to create a blockbuster book; it’s far more cost-effective to promote a few guaranteed big sellers than a lot of risky titles. Sad but true. Perhaps the better thing to do is not to bemoan the inevitable Da Vinci Codes but to instead look for creative, cost-effective ways to promote riskier books.Malcolm Gladwell, author of the trendsetting book about trendsetting, The Tipping Point, has new book coming out called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, in which he “reveals that what we think of as decisions made in the blink of an eye are much more complicated than assumed.”
The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
I started flipping through Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point the other day. In the book, Gladwell explores the idea that all popular trends essentially behave like epidemics, and a slight change in external factors can cause a trend, like an epidemic, to “tip” and then become ubiquitous. He describes how word of mouth is an important part of why this occurs, and also how some initial shift of circumstances begins the process. I quickly realized that I see this phenomenon occurring constantly at the bookstore. The recommend shelf phenomenon that I described a few days ago is an example of this. An intitial shift occurs when I read a book and enjoy it and then pull it from its spot tucked away on the shelf. Once I have displayed it prominently on the recommended shelf, the second part of the phenomenon takes over, word of mouth. Soon, a book that was sitting, forlorn, in a tucked away corner of the store, is selling briskly and you overhear people in the aisles talking about it. Earlier, I spoke about this recommended book phenomenon somwhat disdainfully, but when viewed this way, as a shifting of initial circumstances playing out over time, like Stephen Wolfram’s cellular automata in A New Kind of Science, it is more a fascinating piece of science than indictive of society’s lemming-like tendencies.Addenda Pt. 2My good and old friend Hot Face emailed me with some addenda and additions to yeasterdays post about upcoming books. The new David Foster Wallace collection is tentatively called Oblivion and will come out in March of 2004. Prior to that, in October, he has a new non-fiction book coming out, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. He also mentioned that Stuart Dybek has a new book coming out in November called I Sailed with Magellan. Dybek has long been highly regarded as a short story writer (here’s one called Ant), but this new book is a novel.